There’s a whirlwind of information, misinformation, and even judgement about what you should feed your dog.
But this is a judgement-free zone. We’re here to help you determine what feeding priorities might be important for your dog, what information you might want to focus on when evaluating diets, and how to avoid choosing nutritionally incomplete or cost-prohibitive diets.
I know what you might be thinking: “This is all great, but can you just tell me which food is best and how I know that?” The truth is, it’s not easy to look at the ingredients, calories, moisture content, etc., on a dog food label and say this food is better than that food — at least not unless you’re a trained veterinarian or canine nutritionist, and even then, they need to analyze the studies and dig deeper. And with so many food brands out there, it can be daunting for everyone.
There are a few essential things that you should focus on when choosing a diet for your dog:
- Is there an AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement on the packaging? There should be so you know it’s a complete and balanced dog diet.
- Is the food you're currently feeding or considering feeding your dog designed for your unique dog — their age, breed, activity level, potential medical or hereditary concerns, dog food sensitivities, allergies, etc.?
- Research the company. Are they a responsible pet food company? Do they have a knowledgeable team of nutritionists, formulators, and food scientists?
- Does your dog like the food, and does it meet your needs?
Let's dig into the details!
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Understanding Dog Food Labels
The AAFCO Statement — An Absolute Must!
Let’s start with the simplest part of the process. If the label on the food you’re considering doesn’t have an AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement, don’t buy it.
AAFCO is the Association of American Feed Control Officials, which guides state, federal, and international animal food regulators. For more than 110 years, they’ve provided canine nutritional guidelines (as well as feline and other animals), ingredient guidelines, label standards, and more to help ensure our pets are getting nutritionally complete, balanced diets.
AAFCO statements verify that the food has either been formulated to meet the nutritional levels AAFCO recommends or has gone through a feeding test to confirm it provides complete and balanced nutrition for an indicated life stage.
Key phrase — “complete and balanced nutrition.”
It means the specific can or bag of food has all the essential nutrients required in the correct ratios for your dog. However, your dog may benefit from supplemental nutrients, like joint support for senior dogs or probiotics for gut health. But in terms of basic minerals, protein, and other essential nutrients, those should be found in the primary dog diet.
If you see something like “intermittent” or “supplemental” on the label, you are NOT looking at a complete diet. That’s a topper, treat, or other product not meant to be fed as a meal but more as an addition to your dog’s diet – making up less than 10% of your dog's daily calories.
To learn more about AAFCO standards and statements, check out their website.
What Should Be on the Dog Food Label
AAFCO provides guidelines around what should be included on dog food labels. This means there is a degree of consistency from one dog food brand to the next, which is helpful when comparing diets. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to read pet food labels.
When you’re looking at human food labels, ingredients may seem straightforward, the calories may seem reasonably clear, etc. With dog food labels, there’s a lot more to it. Why? Well, your dog isn’t eating a variety of foods every day.
You may consume iron and vitamin C from a lunchtime spinach salad and magnesium from legumes at dinner. ALL of the nutrients, minerals, protein, vitamins, etc., that your dog needs come from a single diet. Their wet food or kibble needs to cover all their primary nutritional needs.
So, how do we know that a food has everything our pets need? That’s where the support of the AAFCO label standards and nutritional adequacy statement can help. But we’ll break a few important things down here.
A Typical Dog Food Label Includes
- The brand and product name.
- A list of ingredients, in order of weight (heaviest first) before cooking. That’s right. For dog food ingredients, higher in the list doesn’t mean the final product has more of one ingredient than another. It just means the higher ingredient was heavier before cooking. For example, meat at the top of the list doesn’t mean the diet is mostly meat.
A note about protein: Protein sources are a hot topic. Pet nutritionists base the quality of a protein on whether that protein provides all of the essential amino acids that a pet needs and whether the pet can digest the protein to use the amino acids in their body. Examples of protein found in dog food include meat, chicken byproduct meal, corn gluten meal, and wheat gluten.Don’t let the word “meal” worry you. That just means water was removed. It’s not a pro or con — just a fact.
Don’t let the word "gluten" concern you, either. Gluten is simply the protein found in wheat and some other grains. It’s extremely rare for dogs to have gluten intolerance. And it’s a very digestible form of protein for dogs.
A note about fillers and additives: The word “filler” implies an ingredient with no nutritional value. There may be misconceptions about a particular ingredient’s nutritional value. If you have specific questions or terms you’d like for me to elaborate on, please let me know in the comments section below.
- A guaranteed analysis. AAFCO requires that pet food labels have four basic nutritional guarantees: minimum percentages of crude protein and crude fat and maximum percentages of crude fiber and moisture. The term “crude” is in reference to the way each nutrient is measured. These nutritional guarantees help keep the pet food company accountable for accurately upholding the label claims by containing that minimum or maximum amount of the nutrient. The numbers themselves do not signify the quality of the diet.
- The nutritional adequacy statement ensures the food meets your dog’s specific life stage needs (puppy, adult, senior) and complies with AAFCO standards.
- Feeding guidelines should be considered a starting point for how much to feed your dog, but not taken too literally. You can also use our calculator to figure out how many calories to feed your dog.
Considerations for Your Dog’s Unique Needs
While dog food with the “complete and balanced diet” language on the label means it is nutritionally complete, there may be formulations better suited for certain dogs based on other characteristics like your dog’s age and/or health concerns. Let’s look at some of the different factors to consider.
Age and Life Stage
Most dog food is labeled as appropriate for puppies ("growth"), adult maintenance, gestation/lactation, or all life stages. It’s important to feed your dog a diet made for their life stage.
Puppies need more calories than spayed or neutered adult dogs and have special mineral and digestive needs. Adult dogs aren’t burning calories at such a high level, so they need a diet formulated with fewer calories than they did as puppies to avoid becoming overweight. Adult dogs may also benefit from certain types of fiber in their food.
For senior dogs, nutrients like fiber that help them feel full and maintain a healthy body weight, dental support, and omega-3 fatty acids, specifically EPA/DHA, as anti-inflammatory nutrients can be important.
Selecting a food matching your dog’s age and life stage ensures they get targeted nutritional support.
AAFCO Life stage labeling
Look for these descriptors in the AAFCO statement.
For puppies or for growth: This label is necessary for the food you're feeding a puppy.
For growth of large-size dogs (70 lbs or more as an adult): This label is essential if you have a large-breed puppy, as they require different nutrients than other puppies.
For growth/all life stages: This label is appropriate for puppies, adults, and gestation/lactation.
For (adult) maintenance: This indicates a food appropriate for adult dogs.
Note: There are no AAFCO definitions or guidelines for senior pets.
Breed and Size
Yes, there are reasons to feed your Pug differently than your Great Dane. Here are some considerations based on breed and size:
- Kibble size and shape. Feeding a small dog very large kibble can be a choking hazard, as can feeding very small kibble to a big dog who scarfs down their food. The structure of the jaw and the way they chew changes based on their size, breed, and sometimes their unique behavior.
- Chewing versus swallowing whole. You do want your dog to chew their food. Not only is this beneficial to help them feel full, but some dry kibble is coated with specific nutrients that are best released and absorbed through chewing.
- Breed-specific needs. Some foods are designed to meet the needs of specific breeds. This is based on proactively addressing common breed-specific health needs. For example, larger breeds are prone to joint issues as they get older. They benefit from a diet that offers nutritional joint support.
Beagles, Labs, and Bulldogs, for example, are prone to weight gain and benefit from a diet that balances calories with feeling full.
For smaller dogs who poop indoors on potty pads – the smell of their poop could be more of a factor than it is for dogs who eliminate outside. Highly digestible proteins and certain ingredients, yucca can help with stool odor.
Activity Level and Lifestyle
Let’s face it. No one feels good admitting their dog is sedentary. We all want to feel like our dogs are active and energetic.
In actuality, all of our dogs are probably less active than we think they are. Remember, this is a no judgement zone.
So, let’s start by trying to understand more about identifying activity levels. Then, you can pick the appropriate diet and better gauge the amount of food to feed.
- Highly active. Not many dogs fall into this category. Even if your weekends may be full of hiking with your dog, you go for walks a couple of times a day, but the rest of the day, your dog is pretty mellow – they’re probably not in this category. Highly active dogs are up and moving for most of the day. Think of working dogs like hunting, herding, or police dogs.
- Mid-level active. This is where many of our dogs land. If your dog is up and moving about 1 hour a day, with some Weekend Warrior activities (like hiking, dock diving, or daycare), they probably fall into the average activity zone. (I know an hour a day sounds like very little activity. But keep in mind your dog is probably lazing around much of the time you’re not home. Then they get all wiggly and active when you return, making them seem higher energy than they are).
- Sedentary. These dogs aren’t doing much — shorter walks once or twice a day, maybe 15 minutes of play, and relaxing the rest of the day. Senior dogs and giant breeds often fall into this category, as well as dogs who don’t have full-time access to the outdoors or daily doggy daycare playdates. Again, no judgement, but this is where a lot of dogs land on the activity scale.
Pro Tip: An activity monitor can help you see how much time your dog is up and moving during the day. This is a great way to better identify their activity level so you can adjust their food intake if needed.
Keeping track of your dog's weight is another good way to monitor if they're getting enough food or not. Compare them to a body condition chart (featured below).
What’s the best way to determine if your dog is active enough, compared to the calories they’re consuming? Their body condition score.
Take a look at your dog from the side and look down from above. Then, match the shape of their body to the illustrations on the chart. The shape of their midsection and the dip in front of the hind legs are great indicators of whether they need to gain or lose weight. You can use this information and your veterinarian’s input to help determine what diet is best for your dog and how much to feed.
A Note About Reduced-Calorie Diets
If your dog needs to lose a little weight, a reduced-calorie diet may be recommended. Keep in mind the term “reduced calorie” is relative to the brand, not the general daily recommended calories for a dog. It’s a version of that brand’s original food formulated with fewer calories. So, switching from one brand’s original diet to another brand’s reduced-calorie diet doesn’t necessarily mean your dog is getting fewer calories. Check your dog’s current food label for the calorie amount so you know where you are starting and for a better comparison.
Preference and Taste
It’s not all about ingredients and protein sources. Preference matters. And not just your dog’s preference, but yours too. Here are some things to consider:
- Does your dog like the food? Dog food quality is irrelevant if you’re in a constant struggle to get your dog to eat the food.
- Does your dog have any issues that make wet or dry food a better choice? If they need more moisture, have dental discomfort, or need to lose weight, wet food might be preferred. If they like to chew on things and have teeth that need that cleaning crunch, dry food might be best.
- Are you able to easily find the food and move it into your home? A quality diet that’s never in stock or only comes in giant bags you can’t get up the stairs may not be the diet for you.
- Do you board or take your dog to a pet sitter? Sometimes, kibble or shelf-stable food over frozen diets are easier if you have someone else taking care of your dog and they don't have the freezer space for days/weeks' worth of food.
- Is the cost feasible? First off, more expensive doesn’t necessarily mean better quality. But even if it does, you have to find a diet that works for you financially. A fresh food diet may be your dream. But if you’ve got a big dog who eats a lot of food, maybe you need to do a combo of fresh and dry.
- Does your dog get bored with food easily? You hear us talk a lot about being careful when changing your dog’s diet. And that’s still true. But there are some dogs who like variety or freshness. This can impact the kind of food you buy.
- Do you prefer to “shop local,” or are you comfortable buying the big brands? Either option is great. But your answer will influence your decision on what diet to buy.
Storage Tip: If you store your dog’s dry food in a container, don’t forget to wash it regularly. Kibble is usually coated with fat to make it taste yummy. Fat oxidizes over time when exposed to oxygen and goes bad, leaving a nasty residue behind. In fact, if your dog seems to get tired of their food quickly, it could be less about food boredom and more about that residue. Regular washing will help. Better yet, instead of dumping the food from the bag into the container, put the whole bag in the container. You can cut or roll down the top of the bag so the lid still fits securely (keeping your dog safe from a potential suffocation hazard if they were to get into the bag). And the fatty residue will be tossed away along with the bag when it's empty.
Dry, Canned, Fresh, Freeze-dried. Which Food is Best for Your Dog?
You’re probably seeing a lot of marketing around fresh food being “the best” or “the most appropriate” option for your dog. Don’t get too caught up in it.
Each type has its pros and “less than” pros. Dry food is often better for dental care than canned and can be bought in bulk, saving you money. But it’s lacking moisture.
Canned has more moisture, which can help dogs feel full longer. But it often costs more.
Fresh dog food may have less processing (another “bad” word that really isn’t as bad as it sounds), but they can be cost-prohibitive, especially for large dogs or multi-dog households. These foods have different storage needs that may take up a lot of room in a refrigerator or freezer. These foods do not necessarily have different nutrients compared to other forms of food, but they can be very palatable for picky eaters.
What About Toppers, Gravies, and Treats?
Remember, unless the label says “complete and balanced,” it does not provide all the nutrients a healthy dog needs, but it may be a good bonus treat. Things like bone broth and toppers are not meant to replace a nutritionally complete diet. A good rule of thumb is to keep these kinds of fun treats and toppers less than 10% of your dog’s daily calories. You can use our treat calculator to help you figure out how many treats or spoons of topper you can add to their meals.
Especially if offering people food, check the ingredients, too. Even something as seemingly simple as a bone broth or powder may have other ingredients you should be aware of, like onions and garlic, that are highly toxic to dogs.
How to Transition Your Dog to a New Diet
While some dogs may have the stomach for an immediate switch to new food, we don’t recommend it.
A gradual transition over 5 to 7 days will help limit the chance of an upset belly, unpleasant changes in stool, and your dog being uncomfortable.
It’s not that the new food is a bad or unhealthy diet. It’s just that it’s formulated differently. Your dog’s microbiome is used to getting the same things in the same way every day. Then, suddenly, things change, and it can take those microbes a little time to adjust.
Consult with Your Veterinarian About Your Dog's Diet
In the end, you don't have to figure this all out on your own. Your veterinarian plays a huge role in regularly assessing your dog for things like changes in weight, nutritional deficiencies, and areas where they may need new forms of nutritional support as they age. Whether it’s a veterinary-recommended dog food or something off the grocery store shelf, discuss it with your vet. Bring the packaging with you or take a photo of the food label. They'll help you determine if it's the right diet for your dog's life stage and health needs.